(a very short story)
The third time the mysterious young man disappeared, the director of Albuquerque’s Gateway Mental Health Facility called us in.
She’d heard that we were the best—and we were in town for a conference. Sometimes things just come together.
We showed up at the charming tumbledown hacienda and introduced ourselves. Cassie Oldfield, 29, more seasoned than I appeared. Walter Shaws, 62, just as seasoned as he appeared. We run a geoforensics lab and what we do for a living is read earth evidence at scenes of crimes and crises.
"This is going to sound crazy…" the director said.
I glanced at the Gateway Mental Health Facility certificate on the wall.
“No, really,” she said. “But hear me out."
Walter said, "We’re all ears."
“We have a dear resident named … Ken.” She said the name like you’d say a word you weren’t quite sure of. “He showed up here a number of years ago. Amnesiac. Suffering delusions. But kind and helpful, a friend to everyone here. Even brave at times. He broke the fall of one of our oldsters who tumbled down the stairs. You see, Ken is very strong, muscular. As a matter of fact very good looking, in a vigorous sort of way.” She blushed. “But the last two times he disappeared he returned ill. Weakened. This time, I searched his room and found these.”
She set a dish on the worn oak table. It contained green glassy shards. “You know what these are?”
Walter and I moved in for a closer look.
Walter grunted, the sound he makes when intrigued. “We’ll ID them when we get them under the microscope.”
The director was a tall thin woman, wiry. She said, voice strung tight, “Surely you have an idea.”
I suddenly did. I got a wild-ass idea, the kind of idea my partner Walter calls an onageristic estimate. An onager is a wild ass. Well, the director had said this was going to sound crazy. Her description of Ken, and then these green shards—this evidence—planted a thought in my head that was as wild-ass as any I’d ever had.
The director caught my reaction. “Miss Oldfield, you have an idea?”
I glanced at Walter. Twice my age but surely he grew up, as I had, on stories like this.
He returned my look. Blue eyes sharp as quartz. Nary a wink.
I shrugged and turned back to the director. “Delusional, you said?”
“That’s what I thought. Until I found Kryptonite in Ken’s room.”
Walter and I are scientists and we assured each another that we did not believe in the woo-woo stuff.
We borrowed the lab of a colleague at the Albuquerque conference and when he asked what we were examining I winked and said, “Kryptonite.”
He laughed and left us to it.
We put one of the green shards under the stereoscopic microscope. It was glassy, fused by the heat of a tremendous explosion. We identified quartz crystals but the remainder of the material had been melted. To create an element map of the glassy stuff, we used the scanning electron microscope.
At the end of the session we knew what the stuff was made of.
“Holy crap,” I said.
“Indeed,” Walter said.
It wasn’t often that a mineral ID immediately led us to a site, but this one did.
This stuff came from one particular place, and no other.
We hit the road in our rented Jeep and drove the two hours through the desert. Along the way, I thought about Ken. The amnesiac hunting for hints of his origins. The strong young man who was uniformly kind and helpful. Who saved an oldster from a bad fall.
Who wouldn’t want to believe in a man like that?
Who wouldn’t want to believe in heroes?
It was late in the day when we reached the site where the crater had been. The low-angle sun turned the feldspar-rich sand a golden green. This sand was the protolith of our green shards. This was the sand that had been fused into stone.
We found Ken slumped on the ground. Strong and muscular and, yes, very good looking with curly black hair and sky-blue eyes. But he was pale and weak and disoriented now, his eyes dimmed. We gave him water and energy bars.
“Who am I?” he asked.
“A kind and helpful man,” Walter answered. “A good man.”
“From what I’ve been told,” I said, “you are quite the super man.”
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Alamagordo, New Mexico,” Walter told him. “At a site known as Trinity.”
“We’ll take you back home,” I said. “Your friends are waiting.”
Ken started to scoop up a handful of the green stones but we explained that they were mildly radioactive, and that he should not hunt them anymore.
“Yes,” he said. “Kryptonite.”
Walter’s eyebrows lifted.
Ken squinted against the low-angle sun, as if he were hunting the far horizon. “Made by nuclear fusion,” he whispered, voice an ache. “When an explosion destroyed the planet Krypton.”
Walter said, gently, “Or so the story goes.”
I toed a couple of stones. “Actually, they’re called Trinitite.”
Ken turned to me, eyes wide as the sky.
I said, gently, “Created by nuclear fission in the explosion that launched the atomic age on the planet Earth.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Trinitite is real...but don't go hunting for it. Access to the site is restricted, and collecting is forbidden.
For geekier information about the 'Atomic Rock' click the green stones below: